Back to school, back to food

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- No clean water has meant no school for students across several West Virginia districts in recent weeks, and for some, no school also meant no food.

"That's why every provision has been made to adjust menus to use filtered, packaged water to prepare a quality hot meal -- instead of just serving cold lunches -- for the hardest hit, who really need a nutritious meal now," said Diane Miller, executive director of food and nutrition for Kanawha County Schools, the state's largest district.

About 60 percent of public school students in West Virginia qualify for free or reduced-priced meals at school. Throughout the state, schools sometimes will open in the evening, despite snow days, so they can serve students a free meal.

But in this case, in which a chemical spill into the Elk River -- and the water supply -- forced schools to close for six days, that option was too big of a risk, Miller said.

"There was so much uncertainty -- about the water usage and the protocol to go through for health inspections . . . ," she said. "That wasn't done only because there was so much uncertainty about the cleanliness of our kitchens after contamination."

Thursday was the first day students in Kanawha County have attended class (although it was a two-hour delay) since Jan. 9. Schools were on a two-hour delay again Friday. In addition to the water crisis, which forced a water-use ban in nine counties, the area was slammed with multiple snow days, meaning Thursday was the fourth day students have attended class since they returned from Christmas Break on Jan. 2 -- and two of those for were on two-hour delays.

At Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston, all students receive free meals. Ninety-three percent of the school's more than 500 students come from low-income families.

While most schools' doors were closed in the midst of the water crisis and during recent freezing temperatures, Mary C. Snow Principal Mellow Lee was at school, along with several teachers, collecting and distributing food.

That's because many of Lee's students depend on the meals provided to them at school, she said.

"The majority of that time off -- including on Saturday -- my staff helped collect and hand out nonperishable items and water to a lot of our families," Lee said. "A lot of our families were there every day to pick things up, until we ran out."

In a way, Lee said, because of the school's impoverished attendance zone, which police have labeled the most crime-ridden part of the city, her teachers likely were more prepared than those in other districts to handle the crisis.

"For us, that's always in the back of our minds -- basic needs like food and water for the students: Are they being met?" she said. "Today, we're just trying to get the focus back on where we were with academics, and we're coming up with alternative ways to provide things at home for students to do."

Mary C. Snow students also are helped by the fact that they operate on a year-round schedule, meaning students are more accustomed to breaks, Lee said.

"We've been out longer than normal," she said. "I just hope that our adjustment won't be as difficult because we have those three-week breaks. The students just come back and are ready to start where they left off. They're used to it."

Piedmont Elementary School's staff also worked to offer food to families during the time off.

Additionally, Miller said several employees at Kanawha County's Central Office donated canned or frozen fruits and other foods that don't require much water for preparation.

"I have heard of several schools that are distributing foods to their communities for usage at home," she said. "I'm hoping that more will turn up if this crisis continues."

Miller estimated that schools will be able to use bottled water for food preparation through the first week of February.